Visa Liberalisation, Saving the Economy and Readying Defenses – Western Press Digest
Relations between Russia and Belarus appear to have taken a turn for the worse as the new year begins. As Belarus's economy stumbles, Minsk tries to shore up the Belarusian ruble while simultaneously blaming Moscow for some of its economic troubles.
More striking than the economic issues is a new law that would see any activity similar to what happened in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine as an act of war against Belarus. The vague language of the law looks more like a warning to Belarus's military ally Russia than to NATO forces.
Belarusian identity and language is finally gaining state support after a nearly 20 year drought. Sceptics say it is just lip service from the Lukashenka regime, while civil society says a real shift is already underway. All of this and more in this edition of the Western Press Digest.
Belarusian-Russian Ties at All Time Low – At his annual news conference on 29 January, Belarusian Head of State Aleksandr Lukashenka said that if things between Russia and Belarus did not improve in the near future, there could be repercussions. After a year of troubled economic ties and cooled political proximity, Lukashenka threatened to pull Belarus out of the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union. As the Foreign Policy report explains, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and the strained trade relations between the two customs union partners have strained ties considerably.
In spite of its rhetoric, Minsk is hardly likely to make any radical moves that would sever ties – at least not in the near future. With the Belarusian ruble plummeting and over 40% of its exports going to Russia, Lukashenka fears rocking the boat to the point of tipping it over. With the upcoming presidential election in November, Lukashenka has his own survival as the leader of the nation weighing heavy on his thoughts. A economic crash could jeopardise not only his political future, but that of the country as well.
A Call to War? – RFE/RL reports on recent legislation coming out of Minsk that would categorise a number of activities, most which are not typically associated with traditional warfare, a declaration of war against Belarus. The new law stipulates that if any armed force, be they foreign, local or sponsored by a foreign entity, appear on Belarusian lands, it would be considered an act of war. RFE/RL draws parallels between the kind of forces that appeared in Crimea and later in Eastern Ukraine that were either regular Russian armed forces or what is believed to be mercenary units mainly sponsored by Russia. The law came into effect 1 February.
Visa liberalisation to EU Coming Soon? – With 20 years of virtually no progress on the visa front, EU Observer reports that Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics says there are indications that EU-Belarus relations may be on the verge of a breakthrough year. While the EU's traditional concerns about human rights, democracy and civil society still stand, visa liberalisation is gaining ground in talks between officials in Brussels and Minsk. One of the key issues facing visa liberalisation is what to do with diplomatic passport holders, which would require a change in official agreements between the two parties.
Strengthening Ties with Georgia – On 2 February, the Belarusian Minister of Agriculture announced that the government was going to seek closer economic cooperation with Georgia. The visit would be led by none other than Lukashenka himself, who plans to visit in April. RFE/RL notes that the visit follows a wave of criticism from Minsk over the way Russia is conducting itself in the Eurasian Economic Union. Ties between Georgia and Russia remain in poor shape following the 2008 war which led to Georgia losing parts of its territory.
Belarusian Ruble Dives Among Looming Crisis – The Financial Times reports on Minsk's struggles to keep its national currency afloat while the nation's economy is under increasing pressure. The national currency has lost half of its value against the dollar in January alone. With only $5bn remaining of its foreign currency reserves, the Central Bank has had to undertake several measures in order to ensure the country does not default with $4bn in debts due to be serviced in the coming year. A policy of controlling the national currency's depreciation was dropped at the turn of the year precisely to protect these remaining reserves.
The situation was exasperated by Lukashenka himself who publicly stated that the nation might try to restructure its debts, which led to a drop in the value of the government's bonds. He later took this back by saying he simply mis-spoke, meaning to say that Belarus might look to refinance, not restructure, its debts.
Central Bank Shake-up – Following the recent replacement of the head of the Central Bank, the bank has set a new refinancing rate in order to stabilise the volatile economic situation in the country. The new head of the bank, Paviel Kalavur, who headed the bank for 17 years from 1993 till 2010, returns to the regulator after spending the past few years as CEO of a Russian development bank's head office in Belarus. According to Bloomberg, it is hoped that in combination with the reduction in capital controls over the national currency, these higher interest rates will help stifle the Belarusian ruble's depreciation.
Culture and Identity
Belarusian Language Seeing a Resurgence – The Belarusian language has been suppressed by the authorities in Minsk since Lukashenka took office in the mid-1990s, but all of that is appearing to change as even the Head of State is beginning to push for its increased usage in all spheres of life. The Guardian notes that whereas in the past Lukashenka dismissed the Belarusian language wholesale in favour of Russian, the government is slowly trying to raise the language's status in the country.
It is a move that is gaining resonance with the public, at least in Minsk. One expert comments that the public language classes with some 200 students are not in and of themselves particularly useful. Yet, they signal a shift in identity among Belarusians – a point which the founder of one language courses agrees with. Sceptics say that the state's push for the revival of the Belarusian language is little more than a move to preserve the regime by fending off Russian-language's dominance in all spheres of life.
Belarus Wants Foreign Catholic Priests Out
At the end of January, senior Belarusian officials made statements that threatened to undermine Belarus' good relations with the Vatican, severing ties that the country had worked for years to establish.
Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the Commissioner for Religions spoke out against the presence of foreign Catholic priests, most of whom are Polish citizens, in Belarusian parishes, – a tradition has that existed since the USSR's collapse.
Belarus has failed to create its own national church in the course of its history, and the authorities view the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as foreign elements – one from the East and another from the West, – rather as a part of local religious traditions.
With the war in Ukraine raging near its border and a presidential election coming up in autumn, the Belarusian authorities are seeking to establish tight control over domestic affairs, including religion.
Catholics have a weaker position within Belarusian politics, while the Orthodox Church remains under Russia’s protection, and Lukashenka fears to confront it at a time when relations with Russia are strained.
Foreign Minister Explains Away Lukashenka’s Words
At a meeting with the Belarusian Foreign Minister on 30 January, the Apostolic Nuncio Gugerotti expressed his concerns about the “possible interpretation of recent comments about the Roman Catholic Church made by senior officials”. First, the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities Leanid Huliaka on 22 January, and then Lukashenka on 29 January, spoke out against the service of foreign Catholic priests in Belarus. The shortage of local clergy has been the result of decades of the USSR's state atheism policy in Belarus.
Belarusian officials called for the meeting, a fact that indicates that the Foreign Ministry is trying to smooth over Lukashenka’s most recent comments. Minsk has been expending a lot of effort into fostering good ties with the Vatican for years, as it still holds authority in the West and does not demand political reforms in exchange for working relations. For Belarusian diplomacy, losing these ties would signal a major defeat, something Minister Makej is acutely aware of.
Foreign Priests Should Head Home
On 22 January the Commissioner for Religions and Nationalities Leanid Huliaka, a senior government official responsible for religious issues, criticised Roman Catholic priests at a government meeting on religious affairs. “Some priests from Poland are trying to get involved in politics here. They do not like our country, our laws, or our government. In these kinds of situations we should not allow them to continue serving in Belarus”, the official said.
The next attack on foreign clergy came shortly thereafter from none other than Lukashenka himself. The Belarusian leader, during his record-breaking press conference on 29 January, said he is “not quite satisfied with the Polish priests working in Belarus”. Lukashenka did not want to specify the reasons for his dissatisfaction, only saying “they are doing the wrong things”. He also noted that more local priests should be trained in Belarus.
Currently, Belarus has 430 Roman Catholic Parishes, where a total of 430 priests serve. 113 of them have foreign citizenship, usually Polish, but their number is declining. In 2005, for example, Belarus hosted 202 foreign Catholic priests. This is a large share when compared to the Moscow-controlled Orthodox Church, where only 15 foreign citizens served in 2013 out of a total of 1,605.
Nevertheless, according to Huliaka, the Roman Catholic Church fails to supply the necessary number of local priests to Belarusian parishes. The Hrodna seminary has 27 students and the Pinsk seminary even fewer – only 19. In 2014, these religious schools enrolled 2 and 3 students respectively. “It seems that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church has no interest in training local priests”, Huliaka said.
Belarusian priest Piotr Rudkoŭski, speaking to Belarus Digest, said that serving God is a calling, not a mere profession, so training new staff in the Church differs from training people for, say, state institutions. "Belarusian bishops, actually would like to have as many local priests as possible. The Church organises a lot of educational events to attract possible candidates, and parishes even have a weekly prayer for new people to become priests. Yet government officials look at the whole issue from a bureaucratic point of view, not a spiritual one", Rudkoŭski says.
Roman Catholics – An Imaginary Threat?
Belarus over its history has failed to establish a single national church. The Belarusian Orthodox Church is fully subordinate to Moscow, while Roman Catholics maintain close ties with Poland and the West in general. Powerful foreign organisations with influence on the minds of their congregations are an issue of considerable concern for the Belarusian authorities. This is especially true as of late. With the ongoing Ukraine conflict and upcoming presidential elections in November, the authorities need more control over society, and churches in particular.
Although the Catholic Church has been pursuing a policy of Belarusianisation, and today most masses occur in Belarusian, Polish language still retains some influence and most priests from Belarus are educated in Poland.
As Piotr Rudkoŭski shared with Belarus Digest, relations between the Catholic Church and the state maintain a shaky equilibrium. The state allows some autonomy in exchange for political loyalty, for which the church receives criticism from opposition-minded priests.
Lukashenka of course remembers the patterns of voting of Catholics in Western Belarus, which showed the highest levels of support for the democratic opposition during previous presidential elections. However, the Catholic Church has not displayed any open hostility towards the government.
The only known case occurred in July 2014, when the priest Uladzimir Lazar was taken to prison on charges of treason against the state. However, after spending half a year under investigation, he was released due to a lack of evidence. No other similar cases or open criticism of the authorities from Catholic priests are known.
Belarus Changes its Strategy towards Vatican?
According to Rudkoŭski, the Kremlin is interested in raising tensions between the Belarusian state and the Catholic Church. It seeks to hamper the trend of Belarusianisation within the Catholic Church and its impact on Belarusian society. Still, it remains unclear what leverage Russia has on this relationship.
Relations with Russia are already too strained at the moment in both the political and economic realms. Another confrontation on a different topic will make the Belarusian side even more vulnerable. Meanwhile, less radical steps towards state control over religion seem quite acceptable, and especially with the Catholic Church, whose political leverage in Belarus is much weaker than that of Russia’s Orthodox Church.
The Belarusian authorities have tried to use the Roman Catholic Church as an intermediary to normalise Belarus-EU relations, and Lukashenka has been expressing hopes to meet the Pope in Belarus a number of times. The pressure on foreign priests can bury these hopes for good, something that the authorities are well aware of. Lukashenka, in a fit of populist passion, seems to forget to be careful, leaving diplomats to sort things out.